A ministry like no other...
A year ago, in an article entitled "Refugees at the Labour Exchange" we talked about the struggle of undocumented migrants in Paris who had occupied since May 2, 2008 the Labour Exchange near the Republic Square. On June 24, 2009, the strong-arms of the CGT brutally expelled 1,300 occupants. Last week we were able to visit the new place of occupation, in Baudelique Street in the 18th arrondissement. There is a considerable movement, probably the largest we have seen so far in Europe. This magnificent adventure continues and is growing even in a general indifference which is frightening. We urge everyone to go to meet them and support them in every way possible. Here is an interview with Orhan Dilber, a Turkish trade union activist who spent years in the jails of the military junta after the 1980 coup. Refugee in France, he is now a spokesman for the Collective of undocumented Turkish and Kurdish involved in this occupation.
This collective was formed from the occupation in July 2009 of an abandoned large building belonging to the Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie (CPAM),located 14 Baudelique Street, called the "Ministry for the global regularization of all undocumented migrants”. We participated in the occupation. Since, our group is one of ten collectives located behind the Ministry.
Before the occupation, there was no structure or group of Turks and Kurds alike. In the 90s, there was a group of undocumented Turkish, at the time of the Church of St. Bernard, but it was temporary. It must be said that Turks and Kurds have different characteristics compared with other groups. The majority of undocumented migrants from Turkey are Turkish-speaking and not French speaking as most undocumented migrants from former French colonies are.
I am not myself without papers, but my friends needed a French speaking spokesperson. Of course they manage, they all have jobs, but when there are debates within the community or election of delegates, we must have our discussions in Turkish, our common language.
Currently the Turkish and Kurdish group includes 1,300 people. When I saw the great movement behind the occupation in Baudelique Street - the largest movement in France - I questioned the undocumented Turkish and Kurdish. There are over 3,000 people who occupy this five floors 4,300 m2 place. There are meeting rooms, training rooms. We are proud and happy to be among the founders of this Ministry. Who are these undocumented Turkish and Kurdish? Have they been in France a long time, is there still people arriving from Turkey?
Some comrades have been here for over 20 years, have had no papers for dozens of years. The majority have been here for about 10 years, but others have been in France for less than a year. What explains the fact that there was no group before is that most of these people came to France for political reasons. For the Kurds, it is the national crackdown which prompted them to seek asylum, and France is still the country with the most asylum seekers. For the Turks, they are activists who have had problems with the state and the Turks in general have also sought political asylum. During the 80s and 90s it was fairly easy to obtain, but now it is no longer the case because the OFPRA (French Office for Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons) decided two months ago to include Turkey (with Serbia and Armenia) among the safe countries whose citizens cannot get asylum. But we already saw for over a year that most asylum applications were rejected.
We realized that the situation changed and you must now seek regularization through work. Anyway, they all work. This is the system in France which makes them work illegally. France does not welcome these
people with indulgence and generosity. It leaves undocumented asylum seekers to themselves. In other countries, there are detention camps for asylum seekers and you stay until the end of the process. Either you can stay or you can leave again. Here, when you apply for political asylum, you are told, "you have to go to the prefecture, you make your request there, here is a certificate (before it was for one year, now it's three months). You have no right to work, but you can move freely, and it is renewable.” What does this mean? Go work on the black. This means, go find your compatriots in the Turkish community who have been here long, sub-contractors who work for large companies providing discounted labour through undocumented workers. When they come to apply for asylum, the Turks and Kurds are immediately in contact with these networks in order to work. Since they work in their community, comrades have been here for 20 years and do not speak French. They remain isolated.
It can’t have been simple to create such a group. These are people who came for political reasons, but there have been many disputes between forces on the left, many tensions between Turks and Kurds ... Basically it's been pretty good?
Yes, this is exceptional. I had this experience already in Turkey where I was a trade-unionist. I saw that the different political or ideological positions disappear when you are on strike. A problem such as lack of paper brings people together. Here in our community, there are militants of the Kurdish cause and Turkish nationalists who would be enemies if they were in Turkey. They are all facing xenophobe politics which reject everyone together in the same way as the Malians and others. The system makes no difference to their origin. Here at the Ministry, there are over 25 nationalities from five continents. Of course, the majority are Africans, but there are Hispanics, Asians, Russians, Ukrainians, etc. In the group we have never had any problems.
At the Labour Exchange, there were weekly events, many actions, training, and language courses ... What happens at Baudelique Street?
Here's even better than at the Labour Exchange. Activities are much richer because we have so much space. The particularity of this occupation is that occupation has the longest duration. If you consider it started just after the Labour Exchange one, it's been almost two years. We were used occupy churches for several months. This occupation is very massive with more than 3,000 people, all the time. Usually when we speak of an occupation, it is about occupying and not moving. Here we continue to mobilize every week together, but also while travelling. Every Wednesday we organize an event on the grand boulevards of Paris and then we are heavily involved in other events, for example in solidarity with those who challenge the privatization, or at the rally in front of the MEDEF...
Many volunteers provide language courses, or social assistance to help people get medical help, or make representations at the Social security... Lawyers come to help with files for legalisation.
Now, among us, there are dyers. For example, a group gathers the pieces of bikes, which are a bit everywhere in Paris, and make new bikes out of them, a little strange, but which work anyway, and which are distributed to those in need. These people didn’t have a workshop anymore because they had been evicted by the police. Then they asked to be housed here. There is plenty of room. They started making bikes; they have not yet participated in demos with the bikes, but they think they will do it soon.
Apprentices in filmmaking give training, they show the undocumented, especially women, how to handle a camera, how to make a movie. The possibilities are enormous. That's what nourishes and enriches the movement. We live, however, certain isolation, because every time we go out in the streets of Paris and the media talk, they never specify that we are the group that created the "Ministry" in the Baudelique Street. We are accustomed to being manipulated by the press. It is a little similar with the unions and associations. We are invisible.
At the Labour Exchange there were major conflicts with the CGT. Then it was the CGT cleaning industry section which helped launch the occupation of the CPAM large building. I heard that five unions support the movement. But then this is not a very active support?
The support is weak. Sud/Solidaires have been with us since the beginning, the cleaning section of the CGT and the CNT are present, but not all the unions of course. The CGT has a firm and clear position. They are not for the overall regulation of all undocumented. Now they are in a movement of strike pickets1 and call for the regularization of these 5500 strikers there and that's all.
What happens with the building? I read that the top management of the CPAM wanted like to kick you out of this place, but within the CPAM there were protests from employees who felt that it was not right to expel undocumented workers.
Immediately at the beginning of the occupation, we contacted employees of the CPAM and held a meeting with union representatives at Baudelique Street. They gave us their support, saying they would prevent the evacuation of this place because they are in solidarity with the undocumented. It is a kind of guarantee, and as we got past the month of September we are safe until March. There is already a decision to evacuate, but it cannot be applied because of the winter truce on evictions.
You think it will be difficult to stay beyond March?
This will depend on the balance of power. This place is special because it was vacant, empty. If we occupied a place in use, we could not stay longer than a few weeks. Now there are picket lines, which make occupations for one or two weeks, but after they are evicted. This occupation is very special because it gives us the opportunity to organize a movement to develop something else. These are elements that make our movement become stronger. The press and the left are not used to this...
I have the impression that the big unions and political organizations always want to control and organize movements like that, but here they see that the undocumented are quite capable of organizing themselves. It’s exactly like that. I note that the French left wants to do everything for others, but in acting themselves, sacrificing for the undocumented. But they cannot accept that undocumented migrants are beginning to organize. That is why collectives of undocumented migrants are not known, recognized, visible. The GISTI, Cimade, the League of Human Rights, and the humanitarian organizations are yet here for us. At the beginning, the LHR did not come, but they have since Aubry started speaking of the undocumented before the elections
Does it progress on the level of regularisations? Djibril, a spokesman at the Labour Exchange said there had been there a hundred people regularised. Has it continued?
After the evacuation of the Labour Exchange, for over more than a month, the occupants who had been expelled were camping on the Boulevard du Temple. Negotiations were held with the Prefecture of Police which said that if we stopped this occupation in the street, they would examine 300 cases. But there haven’t been 300 regularisations, perhaps half. Police said it felt fooled because we left the boulevard but we went somewhere else and we continue to claim the overall regularization of all undocumented migrants. Apart from that, there have been no regularizations. As we kept on demonstrating before his door, we were received twice by the Cabinet of Eric Besson. We must first finish with these 300 cases they have
1 Today, more than 5.000 sans papiers are on strike in the Paris area, supported by the CGT. This strike touches 1800 firms and temporary agencies.
promised. Then we want all prefectures to recognize the collective undocumented as interlocutors for monitoring files. Of course the government insists on the implementation of the "case by case" policy instead of an overall unconditional regularisation of all undocumented migrants.
What interests us is first to break the ice, because collectives are not recognised. After so many years of mobilisations, we must leave traces, obtain official recognition.
At the same time, it also is about acknowledging the problem of "isolated workers", because the CGT only defends workers in workplaces where there are several undocumented migrants, in larger companies ... At the Labour Exchange and Baudelique Street there are more people working alone or in small businesses. They are not considered as workers. The problem is there. At the heart of our movement are illegal workers. During the heat wave, I remember that the Health Minister said that if the elderly were not being looked after by us, the losses would have been double. There were already 15,000 dead in ten days. It was not only the care for the elderly, but also the people sick, the children ... France needs the undocumented labour. You get money when you have children in order to increase the population, but what are we supposed to do? Working and having children? They need nannies...
For the continuation of your movement, there is a date soon which will be important, I think...
Since the creation of the Ministry, although this has not been very visible to French people, the undocumented in other regions have seen that it works. So there were meetings with the groups from other cities. We have decided to hold a big demonstration of undocumented on January 9th in Paris, starting from the Baudelique Street. We are of course demanding an overall regularisation, but we know that it will not happen at once. Moreover, when we are regularized, what does that mean? We will always be workers, former undocumented, but exploited strangers. There will always be problems. So a structured organization is very important, because even after the regularisation we will need solidarity, an organization in order to obtain our rights at work, decent wages, safe conditions at work, etc.
At the same time we develop relationships with unions. We are no longer strangers isolated away from the class struggle in France, but we're in it. With the movement of the undocumented we prepare for the future too. I think the future of undocumented is also the future of French workers. We always forget it. The French think they are here just out of generosity, solidarity, they see themselves as supporters, but why do you support us? Is it for charity? No, this is for you. When there are undocumented workers working illegally, it means that insurance companies are increasingly empty, there is no pension fund. They will tell you that you have to work until age 70, even later, as they fail to pay pensions because they do not collect the contributions from all undocumented. And all this makes wages go down. There are privatizations, sub-contractors, so it's not just the problem of undocumented, but that of all workers, of the French workers, who must be here with us, not to support us, but to fight for them.
December 15, 2009
Nicholas Bell, Forum Civique Européen, St-Hippolyte, F-04300 Limans